My Burden Became Light

Originally published December 18, 2017.

Today marks day 18 of the Light the World service challenge. December 18 highlights Jesus’ teaching from Matthew 6, “forgive men their trespasses.” I have reflected upon this teaching frequently over the last year and a half, having learned first hand in that time the destructive nature of refusing to forgive and the miraculous healing that comes through forgiveness.

For years I felt bitter over several unfortunate circumstances and difficulties I experienced as a new missionary in 2009. I began my missionary service in January, in the dead of winter, in a teeming city of a strange country with perfect strangers as my assigned colleagues––two women I lived and worked with 24/7. We began each day before dawn, running in the cold and wind, and continued on bicycles without a break or much sunlight until 9:00 pm. Undiagnosed sensory difficulties made my transition to this new lifestyle and environment extremely difficult. I felt scared, physically exhausted, and burdened by the responsibilities of my calling as a missionary. To make matters worse, one of my assigned colleagues was also new but was even less prepared than I was for the rigors of missionary life and, what was perhaps worse, she didn’t want to be there.

Entering the mission field I had assumed that my assigned colleagues would share my level of spiritual preparation, be as diligent and interested in the work as I, and that they would be kind, generous and thoughtful, that we would share an automatic friendship and trust. I did not anticipate in any way shape or form the reality of the situation I faced: One of my colleagues not only did not want to be on a mission, she actively undermined our missionary efforts, drew unsavory attention to us as women, refused to participate in lesson preparation and teaching, distrusted us, manipulated us. Everything in my previous interpersonal experience sent up red flags and told me to get away from this woman as fast as possible, but I was stuck. I felt unsafe, but there was nothing I could do to change my situation.

I tried praying for help to love this colleague who tested more than just my patience. As an extremely fit person she tested my physical limits during morning exercise. I buried parts of my personality because I felt I couldn’t trust her with the real me. I receded into myself, scared and feeling very alone. I was living in my own personal, frozen hell. Depression set in and thoughts of ending my life became frequent, seeming more and more reasonable.

Following a knock down, drag out argument on the street one day between my two colleagues, we returned to our apartment to regroup. Our living room pow wow exposed some of the problems we faced. As we prayed together for help resolving the issues we had uncovered, I felt an overwhelming impression to do something that amounted to turning the other cheek: At the close of the prayer I hug attacked the colleague who so tormented me. The last week or so of that first transfer was spent in lighthearted laughter, singing as we biked the streets of our city. I effectively suppressed the anxiety, fear, and depression of previous weeks to accommodate this colleague and buy a little peace.

Over the next two transfers I endured another difficult companionship, this time with a woman who actively hated me. Meanwhile my previous colleague continued to struggle. I talked to her on the phone and felt a genuine love and concern for her as I tried to help. I considered bringing her a care package at a regional event we were both scheduled to attend but various things put it out of my mind. What was the guilt I felt when I later learned that she had run away from the mission at this event and was in hiding for several weeks before being found and sent home.

These initial mission experiences colored the remaining year of my service to such an extent that I describe them more frequently as poison. My one-time decision to finish my mission kept me working hard but the symptoms of this burden lashed out in my behavior, my reactions to difficulties, and my mission relationships. I feel sorry for the colleagues who suffered beside me along the way. I could not let go of the hurt, betrayal, guilt or bitterness I felt. These feelings overwhelmed me, consumed me at times to the point I felt I was losing my mind.

Within less than a year of completing and returning home from my mission I began to experience my own minor version of post-traumatic stress. At low moments my worst mission memories attacked me and I felt anew the despair and fear of those early weeks on my mission. Fear and despair turned to anger and bitterness. I had felt betrayed by my first colleagues, by my mission president, and by God and I could not let it go. I simply could not forgive the colleague who had poisoned my mission, the leader who had made the assignment and didn’t help me, or the god who had allowed the torture to continue despite many anguished prayers for help. I felt a complete mess at times and then bundled it back up for weeks or months until the next episode. There was a perverse sort of justice in continued suffering.

And so the next six years passed, bitterness growing like a canker on my soul. I tried serving in church with greater love and diligence. No matter how much service I rendered, no matter with how much love I served in church assignments, I could not escape the crushing weight of this horrible burden; the burden of refusing to forgive.

It all came to a head last year. Perhaps it was finally time to heal. My husband listened patiently to my memories; he tried to help me lift the burden. I wrote down my feelings in a letter to my mission president, not really intending to send it. A blessing from my husband helped for a little while, but I still suffered; part of me was still holding on to the hurt and bitterness. Then one day as I read some materials sent out by my mission president in preparation for an approaching reunion fireside with a General Authority, the Spirit told me in no certain terms the price for healing: Forgiveness.

The time had come for me to lay my burden at the Savior’s feet by forgiving the people I blamed and asking for forgiveness in turn. I sent the letter, I friended the former colleague on social media and invited her to the fireside. My mission president took time to counsel with me over the phone. I asked for forgiveness from God, for holding a grudge, for trying to carry my burden alone, for feeling bitter toward Him, for not trusting His judgment or justice. I also finally forgave myself for hating this woman, for missing an opportunity to help her, for treating subsequent colleagues badly. After seven years of carrying this burden I finally felt it become light.

Forgiveness is one of the great Christian miracles. It wasn’t until I experienced the crushing weight of holding a grudge that I truly understood the healing power of forgiveness. The reality of the situation is this: When a person holds a grudge or refuses to forgive, s/he is effectively usurping the responsibility of judgment, which properly rests with God. To refuse to forgive is effectively saying that the perpetrator does not deserve forgiveness from anyone. Because forgiveness is a divine injunction, not obeying it results in a cost to the spirit, the divine part of each person. Based on my experience I would describe this cost as a sort of asset freezing. Each spirit has infinite potential for growth. Disobedience to God’s commands disconnects the spirit from God and, therefore, from potential growth. Refusing to forgive another person stunts personal spiritual growth and inhibits other interpersonal relationships while also setting the individual at odds with God. This is a terrible way to live.

In choosing to forgive, I acknowledged the wrongs that had been committed against me. In forgiving, I offered up the wrong to God to judge. As He instructed Joseph Smith in Doctrine and Covenants 82:23, “Leave judgment alone with me, for it is mine….” God is a righteous judge who perceives the complete truth of any situation. He applies justice as necessary and offers mercy freely. I wanted justice, not realizing that in my refusal to forgive I was committing the greater sin and suffering tremendously for it (see Matthew 18, NT). I needed to repent “that [I] might not suffer” (D&C 19:16).

In the scriptures forgiveness is wrapped up in the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Consider King Benjamin’s people who begged God to “apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified” (Mosiah 4:2, BoM). The Atonement paid the debt of sin in advance and allows for mercy to be applied to all who repent. All mankind has access to this mercy when they ask for it. If the Savior can suffer, bleed, and die on behalf of the human race to provide forgiveness and mercy, shouldn’t each person automatically function on the mercy spectrum? Choosing to forgive a trespass or wrong is choosing to be merciful, choosing to be like the Savior. It took me far too long to realize that I should have been merciful from the start.

When I finally forgave, the burden was transferred to the Savior who invites us to “forgive men their trespasses” (Matthew 6:14, NT) and to take His yoke upon us (Matthew 11:28-30, NT). While some of the hurt and the memories of a wrong remained, choosing to forgive acknowledged the Savior’s right to judge and apply mercy. While I feared not immediately being able replace my bitterness with love, the act of forgiveness invited the Savior to make up the difference with His perfect love.

I can’t put a finger on the healing that takes place through forgiveness, but just as King Benjamin’s people understood, forgiveness purifies the heart and heals the soul in miraculous ways.

I know I’m not the only one who has suffered wrongs and withheld forgiveness. This Christmas, choose to forgive. Invite the Savior of mankind, who “suffered…for all,” to heal you. Lay your burden at His feet by surrendering your pain, guilt, anger, resentment, bitterness. Trust that His judgments will be just and let Him extend mercy to you and your enemies. Jesus Christ loves each person unconditionally. May we all forgive and seek to love perfectly as He does.

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